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Hullabaloo


Sunday, September 25, 2016

 

"A monkey with a machine gun"

by Tom Sullivan


Still from viral video promoting Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley may have lost the Democratic primary this year, but he may have won the Internet. When James Fallows asked him how he might prepare to debate Donald Trump if he had won the nomination, he said, “I’d start by thinking of him as a monkey with a machine gun.” Meaning you don't know where he'll be pointing it when it goes off. That is why tomorrow's debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be the most-watched presidential debate in history.

Fallows looks at tomorrow's debate for the Atlantic and, referencing the famous 160 debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, noted that those who merely heard the debate on the radio called it a tie, but those who saw it on television felt the poised, handsome Kennedy had won. Thus, as the saying goes, "the most accurate way to predict reaction to a debate is to watch it with the sound turned off."

That is why Trump's focus on his primary opponents' high or low energy is significant. Trump is a showman and does best when he can put on a show. Whether what he says is factual or whether he breaks rules is unimportant to the spectacle, or to his fans. Judd Legum observed at Think Progress how Trump's experience in professional wrestling informs how he approaches his "performances." Legum references the late French philosopher Roland Barthe's take on wrestling and passion:

It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theater.
This analogy reveals why the attacks on Trump are so ineffective. Recently, Rand Paul and others have taken to calling out Trump as an “entertainer,” rather than a legitimate candidate. This is as effective to running into the middle of the ring during Wrestlemania and yelling: “This is all fake!” You are correct, but you will not be received well.
Legum writes:
In the current campaign, Trump is behaving like a professional wrestler while Trump’s opponents are conducting the race like a boxing match. As the rest of the field measures up their next jab, Trump decks them over the head with a metal chair.

Others in the Republican field are concerned with the rules and constructing a strategy that, under those rules, will lead to the nomination. But Trump isn’t concerned with those things. Instead, Trump is focused on each moment and eliciting the maximum amount of passion in that moment. His supporters love it.
Fallows considers the kind of spectacle we might see tomorrow night. He writes:
These debates would be must-watch TV because they would be the most extreme contrast of personal, intellectual, and political styles in America’s democratic history. Right brain versus left brain; gut versus any portion of the brain at all; impulse versus calculation; id versus superego; and of course man versus woman. The two parties’ conventions this summer were stark contrasts in tone, stagecraft, and lineup of speakers. But they took place in different cities at different times. The first debate will be a matter-meets-antimatter conjunction at a single point. Live sports, from the Olympics to the Kentucky Derby, differ from other TV programming and compel live viewership because no one knows beforehand how things will turn out. The same is true of live presidential debates, above all any including Donald Trump.
Fallows' review of this season's GOP debate lowlights and what features to watch for tomorrow is better debate prep for the reader than Donald Trump will give himself. Simplicity. Ignorance. Dominance (humiliation). Gender. Trump's limited range works for him. And makes it easy breezy for him to lie convincingly.

How might this go down tomorrow night and how might Clinton play it?
Donald Trump will almost certainly insult her directly, about her own crookedness and about the sins of her husband. This was the heart of his strategy during the primary debates—“I call him ‘Little Marco’ ”; “More energy tonight. I like that” to Bush—and is his instinct. She will answer those quickly and firmly—“My husband and I have been through a lot, as the world well knows. But after 41 years, we are still together”—and then move back to whatever policy point she wants to make. One way to describe this strategy is Martin O’Malley’s. “She has to be direct and tough right back to him, but then quickly pivot to what matters for the country,” he said. “It’s not enough just to disqualify this guy, since he’s survived remarks that in other times have been automatically disqualifying. She also needs to say what the election is about.”

Another way to describe this strategy is to use a phrase from Michelle Obama’s convention speech: When they go low, we go high.
With Trump, there's no way to go but down. The task for Clinton will be to not let Trump drag her down to his level.